Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva and a common eye infection.
The conjunctiva is the clear, delicate membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids and covers the white part of the eye (sclera).
Conjunctivitis is often caused by large doses of ultraviolet light, as in snow-blindness; by allergies to pollen, medications, food, or smoke; by bacteria or viruses; by exhaustion, eyestrain, or lack of sleep; or the use of alcohol.
While all forms of conjunctivitis are commonly referred to as “pink eye,” only the viral form is in the true ophthalmic sense of the term. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are common among children and are extremely infectious.
Inflammation caused by overexposure to light can cause redness of the sclera and a burning sensation. Treatment involves shielding the eyes from excessive light and allowing time for them to heal. Conjunctivitis can produce serious damage and should be treated by a physician.
All forms of conjunctivitis share common symptoms. Most noticeable is the inflammation which causes the small blood vessels of the conjunctiva to become more prominent, giving the normally white sclera a reddish or pinkish color. The eye often itches, and there is a gritty feeling. The eyelids may be crusted over in the morning from an excessive mucous discharge during the night. There may also be blurred vision and an oversensitivity to light. Conjunctivitis does not usually require extensive treatment.
Viral conjunctivitis (true pink eye because it does cause the eye to become pink rather than the bright red or yellowish from discharge) is caused by one of the viruses responsible for the common cold. It is extremely contagious and is spread through contact with tears or nasal fluids.
This form of conjunctivitis usually occurs seven to ten days after contact with an infected person, causing the eye to become itchy and watery. It usually appears in one eye a few days before the other and can develop after a cold. It may be accompanied by a sore throat and swelling of the small lymph glands in front of the ears.
Like a cold, this form of conjunctivitis can linger for weeks. Treatment usually consists of antihistamine eye drops and cold compresses on the eye to relieve swelling; but, generally, it simply has to run its course. The main thing is to keep the eyes clean and thoroughly wash the hands before and after bathing the eyes. Avoiding viral conjunctivitis is difficult because it is so contagious, especially among children. It can be spread by a pillowcase, towel, washcloth, article of clothing, tissue, or any object handled by an infected person.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is normally characterized in eyes that are noticeably bright red, and discharge a sticky, yellow-green mucous, which may be thicker than that from a viral infection. The bacterial form comes on quickly, within days of contact. Like the viral form, bacterial conjunctivitis is just as easy to contract because bacteria are so quickly introduced to the eyes.
Like the mouth, the conjunctiva contains bacteria; but those that cause the infection are not normally present. Many types of bacteria can cause conjunctivitis and may be contracted from a variety of sources. Antibiotic drops is the treatment of choice; and, in some cases, oral antibiotics may be necessary but should clear up within a week.
Allergic conjunctivitis, which can be caused by a host of irritants, results in the eyes becoming red, itchy, swollen, and teary. Some eye-care products, as the preservatives used in eye drops, can also cause allergic conjunctivitis as can pollutants and chemicals. This condition is normally treated with antihistamines and cold compresses. A weak, warm chamomile tea solution is excellent for this.
After conjunctivitis has been diagnosed, there are several things that can prevent its spread:
- keep hands away from the eyes;
- wash hands frequently;
- dispose of used tissues immediately in the trash;
- change towels and face cloths daily and do not share them with other members of the family;
- change clothing daily;
- change the pillowcase daily and wash them and the sheets in hot water;
- discard eye makeup every few months and do not share cosmetics;
- discard disposable contact lenses and do not share them or the cleaning solutions with anyone;
- do not share eye drops;
- stay home until all discharge has ceased from the eyes.